If you start any sentence with- In my day- it automatically qualifies you as a fuddy-duddy. The truth is; in my day the world was a whole hell of a lot more exciting. Twelve year olds today spend their free time crushing aliens on x-box or texting. When I was twelve I built a bomb to blow up the widow Flannigan’s wall.
It all started on a summer’s morning when I went to visit my friend Johnny. Johnny lived with his gran a few minutes away from my house. Johnny’s grans house was a huge old place with loads of bedrooms, sitting rooms and parlours. It was always so cold even in the summer time and smelled like an old man’s coat. The house had once been a bursting full to the seams with people but they had long vanished to the four corners of the world. We had explored the house from top to bottom but it was the attic that was most fascinating. The attic ran the full length of the house and you had to use a hatch in the landing to get up there. The whole place was packed with old furniture, suitcases and boxes packed full of the most amazing things. To a twelve year old this was an Aladdin’s cave of treasures. That morning we had been rummaging through boxes of records in paper sleeves shaded to yellow with the passing years. Johnny moved a big box revelling the corner of steamer trunk pushed far into the back. It looked like a pirates chest covered with a thick layer of dust.
“Would you look at that,” said Johnny pulling the heavy trunk to the middle of the attic where the single light bulb shone on it.
“Open it up would you,” I said imagining it full to the brim with gold and treasure. Little did I realise that the treasure it contained was much more valuable than any ruddy gems. Johnny flipped the clasps opening the lid gave with a rusty creak. The first thing that came out of the trunk was the stuff of dreams. It was a Second World War helmet with a bullet hole, can you imagine a real bullet hole. This helmet must have saved a soldiers life, why else would anyone keep a helmet with a hole in it. In my mind I could see him peeking out of a fox hole when Ping the German sniper picks him off blowing the helmet clear off his head. Johnny sat the helmet on his thick dark curly hair, leaping around, ducking behind boxes while making a pistol out of his fingers. We soon delved deeper into the trunk finding a gas mask, a funny torch with a red lens which was bent in half, a bunch of black and white photos and a load of letters all tied up with a blue ribbon. Down at the bottom of the trunk was folded a full army uniform, boots and all. We both had a go at putting it on but it was miles too big to even imagine playing in. While I was strutting around pretending to be on parade I felt a strange bulge in one of the breast pockets. It took some doing to get the button through the heavy material but it was worth it. In my hand I held a field manual for the Irish Ranger Unit – 1943. On the inside cover was pencilled the name Private James Quigley, just imagine the places this little book had been. It has ridden across oceans under bombardment from sky and sea. It could have even parachuted out over enemy lines, all the adventures this little book had seen to end its days in a dusty steamer trunk in Jonny’s Grannies attic.
For the rest of the morning we read through the little book. A lot of it was just lists of rules and regulations, none of which mattered a jot to Johnny or me. It was at the back we came across a section called Disruption of Enemy Activities. In here it described how to put a land mine in a sock coated with grease on the tracks of a tank to stop it, how to cut communication lines, report on troop movements and improvise explosives from readily available materials.
“That can’t be true,” said Johnny.
“Why not,” I asked believing that the Irish Ranger Unit knew more about making bombs than two twelve year olds.
“I have never seen sugar blow up anything except Mary’s backside.” Mary was Johnny’s second cousin and they hated each other, she always called him stupid and he called her big arse which was at least technically true.
“It says here you have to mix them together with an ignition source and a detonator; whatever they are.”
“I bet we could build one, just a small one,” said Johnny bubbling over with excitement. Now I know you’re thinking that this is a bad idea but you have to remember we are talking about two twelve year olds with a trunk full of Second World War stuff and heads full of dreams. The only thing better than blowing something up would be blowing it up twice. So it happened that operation boom was born.
“Read back over that bit about what we need again,” Johnny said, he preferred to do the thinking and planning, I was relegated to the secretarial pool.
“It says, items such as icing sugar and nitrogen rich dry fertiliser can be used to create an expanding gas explosion. A detonator is needed to begin the reaction such as gun powder or explosive fluid and a fuse.”
“We have most of that stuff just lying about the place, Gran has bags and bags of icing sugar in the press and there is a tonnes of 10/10/20 in the barn. Where will we get gun powder and a fuse,” Johnny wondered aloud walking around the attic stroking his chin like some mad scientist.
“It said explosive fluid as well, petrol might work,” I offered
“It will make the sugar all squidgy, I can’t see that blowing up.” Scoffed Johnny.
“What if we filled a balloon with it and put that inside the sugar?”
“You’re a genius,” Johnny said again jumping around like a loon and slapping me on the back.
We snuck in the kitchen and Johnny lifted a full bag of icing sugar while I distracted his granny, we took a bucket of fertiliser from the shed and filled a jam jar with petrol from the lawn mower. I had to run home to my house to get some balloon’s that mam kept for birthdays in the top of the sitting room dresser.
Soon we sat in our laboratory, better known as the potting shed, with all our ingredients laid out before us.
“I still don’t see how this will explode,” I ventured
“I think we have to get it all wrapped up together; good and tight,” Johnny said making for the door of he shed.
“You mix the sugar and the fertiliser, I’ll find something to do the job,” he said running off towards the house again.
“How much will I mix,” I called after him.
“How do I know, Guess,” He shouted over his shoulder. I found a big flower pot and mixed scoops of sugar and fertiliser equally until I ran out of sugar. Then I poured some petrol into a balloon until it was the size of a sausage. Johnny came crashing back into the shed, in one hand he had a pair of tights in the other he held a pair of his grans thick woollen socks.
“What do you think, will these work.” I eyed the two options and did not fancy handling Johnny’s Granny’s tights so pointed to the socks and said “They will do the job I think, all we need is a fuse.
“Ah I was thinking about that,” said Johnny dropping to his knees stripping the laces from one of his shoes. He held the lace out, “What do you think?”
“Perfect,” I agreed and we got to work making our bomb.
We tied the lace around the petrol filled balloon and dangled it in the middle of the sock while filling all around with the sugar and fertiliser mix. When it was buried like a finger in a bucket of sand with the end of the lace dangling out, we tied off the top of the sock with a piece of string. Even I had to admit it looked very dangerous sitting there on the potting bench, ready to go bang at any second.
“What will we blow up with it,” I asked
“What about the stone wall around the widow Flannigan’s paddock, Gran said she is nothing but a strap anyway.” So it was decided. We picked a spot near a big tree where we could shelter from the blast, assuming that it would not rip the very tree from the ground as well. Johnny wedged the furry bomb into a crevice in the wall. Johnny struck a match while I looked on and held it to the end of the lace. First one match then another and another but the lace would just not take light. The most we managed was to singe the plastic bit on the end.
“Run back to the shed and bring the jar of petrol,” said Johnny. I did not have to be told twice, my feet flew across the fields. I was back in no time with the golden liquid sploshing around inside the jam jar. Johnny unscrewed the lid and dipped the end of the lace into the petrol letting it fully soak. It was time to try again, we were sure to succeed. You could cut the tension with a knife as Johnny drew the box of matches one last time. The head of the match flared into life and he moved the flame closer to the petrol soaked shoe lace. We were going to get the fuse going then run behind the tree for the explosion. As soon as the flame licked the lace it shot up faster than the eye could see. Johnny had over soaked the lace. We never got to take even one step before it went off, and go off it did. It was more a Phifft than a bang, we were enveloped in a huge plume of stinking smoke chocking and half blind we picked ourselves off the ground. When the acidic smoke cleared the Widow Flannigan’s wall stood exactly as it had before. Johnny turned to me, face streaked with soot and tears, his voice raw from inhaling the stinging smoke he croaked “Perhaps we should have used the tights.”
Every time I pass that stone wall I remember that day and all the other days Johnny and myself passed that summer. His love of all things explosive never left him as he is now a captain of the Irish Rangers, the story of his first attempt at making things go bang is a favourite with his troops.